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Eye of the Storm : Visitors Flock to S. Calif. as Nature Lashes Other Spots


Hurricanes hit the Eastern Seaboard, Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico. Earthquakes rattle Mexico and Japan. Riots flare in Tahiti. Bombings shake Paris.

A plague of natural and man-made disasters have hit many popular tourist destinations lately. Meanwhile, Southern California is surprisingly disaster-free. The Southland has not suffered a catastrophe in nearly two years, and that fact is translating into a better year for the local tourism industry than many had expected.

"We're having a good year," said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting in Los Angeles, which analyzes the hospitality industry. "We're having a slightly better year than we anticipated."

Baltin noted that Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties are all posting increases in hotel occupancy and room rates so far this year. From January to August, hotel occupancy was up 1.5% in Los Angeles, 8% in Orange County and 7.5% in San Diego, according to a PKF survey. The average room rate rose 1.1% in both Los Angeles and Orange counties, and 4.5% in San Diego.

This was expected to be a quiet tourism year in Los Angeles because the city lacked a mega-event like last year's World Cup soccer finals, had booked fewer large conventions than in 1994 and was no longer hosting the armies of insurance adjusters and relief workers who trooped into town following the January, 1994, Northridge earthquake.

But Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California appear to be benefiting from the good fortune of having good fortune instead of the parade of riots, fires and earthquakes that have bedeviled the region in the last few years, tourism experts said. At the same time, other well-known tourist stops have not been so lucky.

"We're hoping some of those tourists come in our direction," quipped John Heinritz, marketing director for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, adding quickly that little destination switching probably has occurred.

"Do people change vacation patterns that they've had ingrained for many, many years? Probably not," he said.

"The angle we see it from is there was a period of time when we got more than our share of those things in a row. People always thought it was just L.A. But when it happens in other areas, you realize there's really nowhere you can go in the country without the possibility of something happening to you, thanks to Mother Nature. Every region has its peculiarities."

"The advantage that we have is that 99.9% of the time, it's wonderful here," Heinritz said.

Indeed, Los Angeles returned this summer and again this fall to the list of the top five U.S. travel destinations booked by travel agents, according to a survey by the American Society of Travel Agents.

"Los Angeles hadn't been in our top five for a couple of years," said Steve Loucks, director of public relations for the trade group and author of the survey. "One of the primary reasons is because of the unfortunate natural disasters and other things that have had an effect on Southern California."

As a result of the disaster-free roll, the number of visitors to Los Angeles in 1995 probably will hover at about the same 22.2-million-visitor mark that was achieved in 1994, Heinritz said.

"We're running about even with last year, but I think that means we're doing well," Heinritz said.

The bureau had projected a 2% increase in visitors. Heinritz now thinks that level is out of reach this year because many Mexican tourists stayed home thanks to economic uncertainty in the wake of last year's peso devaluation. However, he said, the increase in hotel occupancy is more significant than the visitor statistics because hotel guests tend to spend more money than those staying in private homes.

Orange County's hotels, restaurants, car rental operations and theme parks are having "one of the best years that they can remember," said Elaine Cali, spokeswoman for the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau. "It looks good and everything seems to be pointing toward a really good tourism year for Orange County."

Visitor totals are up 2.3% to 22.2 million through July, the latest statistics available, she said. Part of the credit goes to heavy advertising by Disneyland to promote its new Indiana Jones attraction and its "Pocahontas" stage show, Cali said.

Southern California's theme parks, which have unveiled high-tech attractions this year, report that attendance is hopping, although none released attendance figures.

"With Indiana Jones, we've found the golden chalice," said Michael Conley, a spokesman for Disneyland. "We had a wonderful year, that's for sure."

Knott's Berry Farm is "doing very well" with its new Jaguar roller coaster, said spokesman Bob Ochsner. "We're going to be up for the year . . . at least several percentage points."

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